The Bottom Line: We ’ re mentally primed to follow authority figures, no matter how crazy they may be.
In a famous study, a group of volunteers was asked to memorize a seven- digit number, walk to the end of a corridor and choose one of two desserts: either a piece of chocolate cake or a cup of fruit salad 61 . Another group was given the same task, but only had to memorize a two-digit number. Those who had to memorize seven numbers predominantly chose the chocolate cake – while the other group was closer to 50/50. This is one of many examples of ‘ cognitive load ’ - the phenomenon that our brain works best at processing only a few things at once. When we have too much to focus on, we revert to simple, comfortable decisions and choices – not ones that require thought, foresight, or planning. It turns out that humans are generally able to hold 7 (+/- 2) pieces of information in short-term memory. As we get close to the maximum 7, our choices simplify. In this experiment, those with high cognitive load chose the ‘ unhealthy ’ dessert, while those who were not mentally taxed were better able to resist the temptation of the tasty – but less healthy- chocolate cake. Cognitive load is pervasive in modern society. And so are its impacts. Poor people spend so much of their mental effort worrying about money and how they are going to pay bills, that they often make poor decisions elsewhere in life – the equivalent of choosing chocolate cake. (Recent research has shown that worry about money actually drops peoples ’ IQ, leading to an interesting implication: the very condition of being poor tends to rob people of cognitive flexibility and processing power, not vice versa as is often assumed). 62
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